“It’s obviously ridiculous to say somebody is ‘pro-abortion,’” Gloria Steinem told the Associated Press in May. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I think I’ll have an abortion. It’s a pleasurable experience.’”
Abortion-rights advocates have been saying that since their movement began. We should take them at their word, because it’s true. We see their truth where it intersects with our truth, which is that abortion is not only an injustice to unborn children but also—here is where we and most pro-choice Americans meet—an affliction to anyone who thinks about it.
Abortion hurts. The thought of it does, and the experience of it does, too, as women who have had abortions have reported over the years, although one might arrive at their conclusion even without their testimony, because what they explain stands to reason. To take the life of an unborn child who happens to be your unborn child must be a loud invitation to a special kind of disagreeable emotion.
Millions of Americans call themselves pro-choice. Don’t call them, en masse, pro-abortion. First of all, as Steinem reminds us, they aren’t. A few probably are, for the reason I explain below, but when in doubt, give the benefit of the doubt. Do so for the sake of honesty and out of charity but also to affirm the anti-abortion sentiment residing quietly in the womb of the abortion-rights movement.
Now a few sentences about that tiny klatch of Americans whom the label “pro-abortion” does seem to fit. A person is more likely to be pro-choice if a woman close to him has had an abortion. (We know this from polls.) So a rise in the abortion rate should increase public support for, or at least resignation to, the pro-choice cause.
If we see that, professional abortion-rights advocates probably do, too. It would be reasonable to call them “pro-abortion” insofar as they fight, as so many do, any effort—pro-life pregnancy centers are the prime example—that is intended to reduce the number of abortions but does not conflict with a woman’s legal right under Roe v. Wade.
Prolifers have used the term “pro-abortion” promiscuously, however. Its precise meaning no longer registers with most people. Its over-broad application over the years has blurred for them the distinction between a small, hard core of abortion-promoting activists and the millions who consider abortion a tragic necessity.
We disagree with the majority of pro-choice Americans about the “necessity” part, and we disagree that it’s tragic in the sense of “distressing but unavoidable,” but stop at “distressing” and consider: We and they are in solid agreement about that much. So let’s meet them there, and not just to create a kumbaya moment. We could use their help.
We are already savvy in stressing the later stages of gestation when we address the public at large. As the unborn child’s resemblance to a newborn increases, so does the resemblance of abortion to infanticide. That’s where public opinion is most with us. Most states restrict abortion after 24 weeks because pro-life activists have accepted the support of voters and lawmakers who are only moderate, not rigorous, in their support of pro-life ends.
Most of us want to apply that strategic flexibility to the national consensus that abortion should be legal but rare, or at any rate rarer than it is. We hold on to our ideal that one day the unborn will be welcomed in life and protected in law, but we do not hold out for perfection in the meantime. We appreciate that we make progress in increments.
Less do we appreciate that half of the population looks at our legislative achievements in protecting the unborn and sees only that we have taken something away. But many even of the mushy middle, as we call them, with a derision they don’t deserve, think that we’re right to do so. In most states, we have succeeded in taking away carte blanche to abort a six-month-old fetus. If we could, we would take away the freedom to abort at three months. We aim, over the long haul, to take away bit by bit until we, or our great-grandchildren, have a complete abortion ban.
That’s how we, our ambivalent allies, and our unequivocal adversaries all perceive our agenda. On the six-month ban, we’re in the mainstream. Popular support for a ban at four months would be iffy. By the time we’re at three months, the numbers who would support us have dwindled further. Only about 20 percent of Americans think that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.
Legal restrictions are the conventional means that we pursue to protect in law at least some of the unborn, but we could achieve that limited end also by taking the opposite approach. We’re generous with our time and private contributions, but typically we do not try to achieve the same results through a targeted expansion of government largesse, in part because economic conservatives play for the same team that social conservatives do, the Republican Party.
We don’t typically advocate an expansion of government entitlements that reduce the economic pressure on women and couples to abort. Economic conservatives say that entitlement spending doesn’t lower the abortion rate, but they don’t know. No one does. Not all the pressures that a woman might feel to abort are economic, but some of them are. It is intuitively correct to suppose that, in the aggregate, the abortion rate reflects to some extent the economic conditions of those who choose against keeping the baby.
Given annual national deficits and the continuing growth of the national debt, we should be cautious about pushing the idea of entitlements as a check on the abortion rate, which has been declining for the past thirty years anyway. To discourage abortion through entitlements, though, we wouldn’t necessarily have to increase them. We could achieve some good just by explicitly specifying as one of their purposes the inducement for recipients to keep their unborn children.
The use of entitlements to send a positive message is an idea that the Democratic Party naturally lends itself to, but here the influence that pro-abortion activists exert intervenes. Party leaders realize that the Democrats’ hard line on abortion is too extreme for most of the country. They’re lucky that most voters do not rank abortion a top issue, but the minority who do is sizable. If you’re willing to take what is seen to be the extreme position that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, it’s plausible to assume that you probably rank the issue higher than the average voter does. The 20 percent of Americans who think as you do will not alone carry a presidential or congressional election, but they are a sizable minority that the Democrats cannot afford simply to write off.
So the Democratic National Committee has declared the party a big tent on abortion. At the national level, Democrats will still stand for abortion rights in blunt, monochromatic language, but the DNC will also support viable pro-life Democrats in local and congressional elections. Abortion-rights leaders object strenuously, of course. The resulting tension is a picture of the stalemate that has characterized our abortion debate since it began.
For Democrats to articulate the position that abortion should be legal but discouraged, like cigarettes, would require more creativity than party leaders have demonstrated on this issue so far. Preempting their move in that direction in any case is the omnipresence of the handful of party loyalists and supporters who don’t want abortion even to be discouraged, much less outlawed.
They are convinced of the theory that the masses will eventually be persuaded if you dig in and keep a straight face while maintaining willful blindness to what everyone else sees: that there are two parties to every abortion, the aborting and the aborted. They pretend that the latter doesn’t exist as a human being with moral worth, and they hope that the authority with which they insist on that nonexistence will lead you to say, and possibly even believe, that you don’t see the baby either. It’s a desperate, pathetic pitch. People don’t buy it.
Tom Perez, Nancy Pelosi and Co. face a dilemma. Whichever path they take, the party will incur a cost. It will come in one of two forms: rebellion by the Democratic Party’s pro-abortion hard core or continued rejection by pro-life and some abortion-moderate voters. If Democrats decide to accept the former as the price of avoiding the latter, they stand nothing to lose by moving their official position on abortion toward the existing national consensus, which is closer to our view than it is to their current party line. We should encourage them.